Friday, February 8, 2013

And the Survey Says!... Allies & Allyship Reflections Part 2 of 3: Common Mistakes

For the ninth meeting of RAPP XXVIII, our facilitation team decided to play a game! We're in the process of exploring the concept of allies & allyship in social justice and decided to survey as many folks as we could on short notice about it to build a game of Family Feud.

Read the background on this in the first post of this series.

What is the most common "mistake" you see allies make?
This question appeared on the survey with the following additional explanation:  "What behaviors/language/ignorance/habit makes someone who's well-intended not actually an ally, in your mind?"  We asked folks to specify one or two things, even knowing the full answer is much more complex.

The intention behind this question was to get "real talk" answers about the everyday oppressive and hurtful things well-intended people do.  We encouraged people to respond in terms of however they defined ally.

And the Survey Says!
The eight most common responses, from most frequently cited to least, are:

Not working on ourselves.  We've been taught our whole lives to be the opposite of an ally.  A life-time of learning to participate in oppression is not undone by a declaration of allyship.  Instead, it takes a lifetime of unlearning.  Allies must work to continually learn about the impact of our language and behavior, regardless our positive intent (this dynamic is often called "intent vs. impact").

Acting like a know-it-all.  In Accelerating Racial Justice, we called this being an "arrogant jerkface" as we worked on how to avoid this too-common pitfall.  In explaining intent vs. impact, Dr. Maura Cullen writes, "The first step in being willing to accept responsibility is to understand that even well-intended people can cause harm."  This common problem arises when we forget that, as allies, we're in those well-intended people.  At Facing Race 2012, Junot Diaz reflected in his keynote why this is a problem:  If we had the solution, we would have "fixed" it by now; so, in the meantime, let's hedge our bets by allowing many solutions to try their best.

Acting like you're part of the "in group."  Since ally has been framed as "working with another group," it means we're not in that group.  The third most common mistake people cited was acting as though that's not part of the dynamic you're confronting.  Many issues are connected with this:  Co-opting language and expression, negating the different daily and lived experiences of group members, and negating that your own groups' daily and lived experiences (and in the case of folks with a dominant identity, receiving daily privilege based on your identity).

Doing what I think people want/need.  This was deeply connected with "acting like an arrogant jerkface" in people's responses, with "listen. listen. listen. listen." in best practices, and trust in challenges.  This is also part of why "recognizing, action" still tips the scales toward supporting oppression on the Oppression Action Continuum.  Prioritizing what I think a group needs/wants/"should do" over the wisdom, experience, and practices of the group I'm working to ally with is not being an ally, according to our survey.  As one respondent stated, "You're there to be supportive, not run the show."

Staying silent.  Allies earn trust through consistently standing up, speaking up, working on themselves, and "walking the walk."  As the survey showed, there are a lot of challenges allies have to overcome to act as allies.  Learning to speak up even when - no, especially when - it's inconvenient, uncomfortable, and uncertain is what separates the "talk" from the "walk."

Paternalism.  Yes, experiencing oppression is hard.  Though they may feel valuable in the moment, many respondent highlighted that pity, overdramatic expressions of sympathy, and claiming ownership ("oh, I love my gays!" are merely reinforcing the dynamics you're intending to work against.

"I totally get it."  Dr. Maura Cullen summarizes the many contributions of survey participants well on this when explaining the common intention & impact of statements like "I know exactly how you feel!" in 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say:

This comment is used to find some common ground and to demonstrate your empathy and compassion to the other person.  It is meant to lessen the other person's isolation by "normalizing" her/is experience.
This will typically shut the other person down for one very simple reason: you cannot know exactly how anyone else feels.  Yes, perhaps you have had a similar experience, but right then the conversation is not about you, it is about them.  Telling a wheelchair user that you know exactly how they feel because you used a wheelchair for a month due to an injury minimizes their daily experience.
Another point commonly brought up with this is that oppression is far too complex for us to 100% "get."

 Speaking on behalf of the group.  You may occasionally encounter a situation where you're the only one who might speak up - for example, you're in a group of people of all the same race and a joke is made about another racial group.  That happens.  What happens very frequently that these respondents are pointing out is that folks speak over people in the group they're working to ally with - talking first, interrupting, oversimplifying, diminishing, and unnecessarily restating what group members are saying.  This can be part of being a distrustful, narrowly-focused, arrogant jerkface - and it can be unlearned.

Coming Up

Part three of this series will address what survey participants cited as common mistakes allies make and best practices for allies (part one looked at challenges allies face).  For more on "common mistakes" (and "best bet" alternatives) I highly recommend 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say by Dr. Maura Cullen - stop by the RAPP Office to borrow a copy!

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